UCHealth: Take precautions against hypothermia
When outside during colder weather, the body can lose heat faster than it can produce it. Couple that with moisture from sweat, the sky or a body of water, and you have the perfect recipe for hypothermia.
“Hypothermia is a medical emergency that happens when your body is losing heat faster than it can produce it, which can lead to an abnormally low body temperature,” said Dr. David Cionni, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “If you fall into an icy lake, hypothermia can set in in a matter of minutes. If you’re backcountry skiing, have cotton layers on, and become stuck out there for whatever reason, it can set in within a few hours.”
How cold is cold?
“The body’s normal temperature is around 98 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Cionni. “Everyone is a little different, especially since a person’s body temperature fluctuates throughout the day with their circadian rhythm. Clinical hypothermia is when the body’s temperature dips below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Hypothermia is considered mild when the body’s temperature is between 89-95 degrees Fahrenheit, moderate when between 82-89 degrees Fahrenheit and severe when less than 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
Who is at risk?
Babies, young children, the elderly and inexperienced outdoor enthusiasts, as well as people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are those most at risk of hypothermia.
“If you’re under the influence of something and lose consciousness outside in the cold, you can put yourself in grave danger,” said Cionni. “Babies and young children can lose body heat quickly or not realize they’re getting really cold. Whereas with the elderly, they may not have the physiological resources necessary to respond to cold stresses. They can actually get hypothermic at home if the thermostat isn’t set correctly and they’re not dressed properly.”
What symptoms should I look out for?
Warning signs of hypothermia include shivering, difficulty speaking, confusion, lack of coordination, sleepiness and still muscles.
“Shivering is your body trying to generate heat,” said Cionni. “It’s a sign that you’re in a situation where the body is saying, ‘Hey, we have a problem.’ If you’re shivering, you haven’t kept yourself warm enough. It’s important to monitor shivering, because if a person stops shivering but hasn’t been sufficiently warmed up, that is definitely a concerning sign.”
Cionni said once a person starts to not think clearly, it can be significant, as the person may not understand that they’re hypothermic and making decisions that actually worsen their situation.
How is hypothermia treated?
If you or someone you are with appear to have hypothermia, seek immediate emergency medical treatment as soon as possible.
Get to a warm place and remove anything that is wet. Cover the person with warm articles of clothing or blankets, as these layers will help prevent further heat loss.
“This is passive external warming, which banks on the fact that the person will be able to warm themselves up,” said Cionni. “Depending on the degree of hypothermia, active external warming may be necessary, including more warm blankets, a warm bath and warm air directed at the patient.”
With moderate or severe hypothermia, it may be necessary to perform active internal warming procedures in an emergency department. Those steps could include warm IV fluids, warm fluids in body cavities and possibly warm air into the lungs.
How do I prevent hypothermia?
Take adequate preparations if you’re going to be out in the elements.
“When I’m out for even a short ski loop on Rabbit Ears, I always take an extra non-cotton base layer and a packable down jacket that I could put under my shell,” said Cionni. “That way, if I do find myself in a situation where I am out in the elements longer than expected, I’m prolonging the time I can safely be there without developing hypothermia.”
If responsible for young children, pay attention to them, as they may not readily acknowledge when they are cold or wet. Reach out to elderly family members and neighbors, too – they may have underlying health conditions that could make it more difficult for them to regulate body temperatures, even in their own home.
“Hypothermia can happen really easily if you’re not paying attention,” said Cionni. “However, if you prepare for potential cold and wet situations, you’re a step ahead in keeping warm.”
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